From William Shakespeare’s day to the present, audiences have been spellbound by stories involving intrigue, political conspiracy, and violence. This is natural for aristocratic and commoner audiences alike. As long as unjust hierarchic society exists, the spectre of social instability and chaos will haunt its dreams. William Shakespeare, the great playwright of the English Renaissance, knew well the fear of anarchy. It is said that he was obsessed with the idea of stability, and wove the motif of social violence through several of his greatest plays. King Lear, considered by many to be Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, depicts social violence in radical fashion. The play presents no ravening masses of beast-like peasants thirsting for the blood of their natural superiors. Instead, the insane railing comes from the so-called superiors themselves. It is the knight Edmund, the Duchesses of Cornwall and Albany (while gouging out the Earl of Gloucester’s eyes especially), and of course King Lear himself, who behave like unreasoning beasts. This is Shakespeare’s point. It is the unjustified position of knight, duke, and king that takes away man’s humanity and makes of him a raving animal of violence, deceit, and lust. The role of power in a rigid, class-based society requires violence, organised oppression, and conspiracy in the pursuit and maintenance of “stability”. Shakespeare makes this painful truth tragically clear in his great play King Lear.
The first major character in King Lear to dazzle the audience with his hunger, duplicity, and murderousness is the villain knight Edmund. The illegitimate son of the Earl of Gloucester, Edmund has lived his entire life in a dangerous middle ground. Worse than a commoner in the sense that he is the product of unlawful sexual union, but better than your average knight bachelor in the sense that he is obviously very much loved and protected by his father the Earl, the “knave” and “whoreson” Edmund takes instant advantage of his peculiar status. First, he rejects absolutely all “custom” governing social relations and declares that “Nature” alone shall guide his behaviour. In other words, Edmund will live by one “law” only: the kill-or-be-killed law of the jungle. He does this to “grow”, to “prosper”. He then enters into a series of intrigues, through falsehood and manipulation, whereby his half-brother, then his father, and eventually even the royal family itself are ensnared and destroyed. All through this, Edmund grows, he prospers. He is formally adopted by Gloucester, then inherits his father’s Earldom and becomes the vassal of Cornwall, and finally commands armies and aspires to the kingship of the whole of Britain. As he so characteristically observes in Act V, “To be tender-minded does not become a sword”. It is through totally unrestrained greed, dishonesty, and violence that Edmund advances from being a “bastard” to “compeer the best”. In Edmund’s eyes, this is only natural. The unjust, rigid, class-based society he lives in makes it so.
Just as Edmund is encouraged by the nature of hierarchic society to scheme his way to the top, so too are King Lear’s two elder daughters, Gonerill and Regan. No sooner have they been given equal shares of their father’s kingdom (“that future strife may be prevented”) than Gonerill and Regan begin to stalk each other like beasts of prey. Act II has barely begun before the first whisper of war “t’wixt the Dukes of Cornwall and Albany” is revealed. This “division between the Dukes” worsens over the course of the play, until Regan says of her sister Gonerill, “I shall never endure her.” Regan seeks to destroy her sister. She must. Otherwise, she will forever fear Gonerill’s destroying her. Similarly, both daughters contrive “a plot of death” upon their own father. Again, to do otherwise would invite Lear to “resume the shape” of king and revenge himself upon them. When Gonerill and Regan discover their power is under threat from Cordelia (who, united with King Lear would be a very formidable opponent), they lash out at “traitor[s]” to every side. They arrest the Earl of Gloucester and savagely pluck out his eyes. Regan buries a dagger in the back of a servant who objects physically to the Earl’s mistreatment. Gonerill later stabs her sister in the back via a vial of deadly poison. This paroxysm of violence, which eventually consumes all but two of the play’s principal characters, is caused by the nature of society itself. To remain safely and stably superior, one has to crave power, connive, and kill.
The entire spasm of strike and counter-strike in the play occurs over a grotesquely short space of time. Perhaps three weeks elapse between the action’s beginning and end. The one principle character, therefore, who has enjoyed position and power the longest is none other than King Lear himself. “Fourscore and upward” years of age, the king has been gaining and maintaining power for many decades. The play is explicit about how he has done this. King Lear protects his long-held power by lashing out instantly and viciously at all perceived threats. First, he disowns his favourite daughter Cordelia for refusing to enter the play’s famous love contest. He then banishes the Earl of Kent for contradicting him. He afterwards attacks the King of France for not abandoning his suit for Cordelia’s hand. He then threatens his other two daughters, saying to Gonerill that he would like to “flay [her] wolfish visage” and to Regan that his “revenges [against her] shall be the terrors of the Earth!” Even at the end of the play, vestiges of Lear’s violent, power-hungry self remain. When those who have slighted him are mentioned, all he can say is “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!” Lear must expunge all challenges to his authority. He explains this imperative early in the play when he declares to the Earl of Kent:
Thou hast sought to make us break our vows,
Which we durst never yet, and with strained pride,
To come betwixt our sentence and our power,
Which nor our nature nor our place can bear,
Our potency made good, take thy reward.
Lear’s “potency”, “place”, and even “nature” as a person, is dependent upon an all-or-nothing relationship with those beneath him in the social order. They may not question. They may not carp. To do so causes Lear to visit upon the offender instant destruction. Only in this way can King Lear continue his grasping, arbitrary, violent reign.
The tragedy of Shakespeare’s King Lear, therefore, is not only that of a man deluded by power. It is also the tragedy of a fatally flawed social system that is inherently criminal, unequal, and brutish (and unable to change). Seen in this light, Lear’s doomed behaviour is not that he blindly destroys his friends and empowers his enemies. It is that Lear aspires to surrender the reigns of kingly power in the first place. A man in his position does not have the freedom to do such a thing. The system itself forbids it. Such a system constantly teeters on the brink of anarchy. Hierarchy is in a constant, insane, frenzy of self-preservation. Social violence threatens at every instant, not only from the lower orders, but also from the upper classes themselves (if anything, the aristocracy is even more prone to insensate behaviour). Shakespeare’s entire career demonstrates that he was very much aware this tragic, painful fact. The motif of social violence is woven through almost all of his plays. In each, Shakespeare expresses his audiences’ deepest anxieties. If today’s audiences respond to Shakespeare’s King Lear with that sense of pity and horror that is tragedy’s aim, it is not for the “foolish” old king alone that they feel such a profound emotion. Their deep sorrow and gnawing fear is felt, in the final analysis, for human society itself, as a whole, for our current civilisation is just as greedy, lying, and gorily bloody-handed as was Shakespeare’s own.